|If any country were to intervene in Syria it seems most likely to be Turkey.|
Syria said the Turkish jet was in Syrian airspace. Turkey said it was in international airspace. Either way, Syrian forces shot it down. As of writing the two Turkish pilots are missing. The rebels in Syria have so far used no aircraft. They have none that are commonly known about. So what on earth were the Syrians doing shooting down their northern neighbour’s aircraft at such a tense time?
Well the Syrians might not actually be technically in the wrong. The Turkish foreign minister did admit that the jet had entered Syrian airspace briefly 15 minutes before it was hit. However, it was unarmed he said, conducting domestic radar tests and was not, contrary to Syrian assertions, warned before being shot down.
Syria, however, is in a state of virtual civil war. The two countries have reason to be wary of each other as relations have plummeted since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime started last year. Turkey shelters the Free Syria Army and has been the recipient of over 30,000 Syrian refugees from the fighting. If any country were likely to intervene in Syria it would be Turkey. It might not be important that Turkey is a member of NATO, though it will now make representations to NATO about the downing of its plane. Turkey though is fed up of the refugees and the bombardment and massacre of civilians it sees over the border. Many are openly calling it civil war in Syria now, and it is clear that the rebels are putting up as much of a fight as they can. However it also seems obvious that despite increasing numbers of defections, the mass of troops and heavy weapons is in the Assad regime’s hands and they are using them. Reports are hard to verify but few doubt that it is mainly Syrian shells that are flattening houses and civilians. It was June 2011, yes last year, when I was first told of the possibility of Turkish troops crossing into Syria to create ‘humanitarian corridors’ to protect civilians trying to escape. That was by a former Turkish foreign minister. That idea has been mentioned many times since. Of course, it would not be seen as such by the Assad regime which claims it is fighting against terrorists. It would be seen as an invasion.
Was it possible the ‘domestic’ radar tests being conducted by the Turkish jet were in fact probes of Syrian air defences for a future planned intervention? This happens a lot, even without war conditions, between many countries. Turkey is notoriously crabby about jets coming too close to its own airspace either in mainland Turkey or in northern Cyprus.
Could the Syrians have thought it was a rebel aircraft? Unlikely, though not beyond possibility. Other weapons are being snuck in to the rebels. Some aircraft could have reached them over Syria’s borders, even over the border with Turkey, though Turkey denies supplying the Free Syria Army with weapons.
There is also the defection of a Syrian airforce colonel in his jet just a few days before, who landed in Jordan, which at the very least would have put Syrian air defence on edge.
All of this though is very marginal and unlikely stuff. The Syrian army would most likely have known given the location that the jet was Turkish. The Turks claim their aircraft wasn’t even warned before being fired on. That would indeed have been overly aggressive. Turkey and other NATO leaders haven’t indicated they have much of an appetite for intervention in Syria, and some reasoned, calm diplomacy between the two countries may well be enough to diffuse the issue. But that is not assured given such troubled times along the border. Now, with NATO meeting about it, Turkey calling it ‘a hostile act’ and the situation in Syria deteriorating, it could have been a very rash shot indeed.